School evacuation plans in West Maui are being revised Hawaii DOE said.

Frustrated parents, teachers and community members testified in front of the Hawaii House of Representatives working group on Maui schools Thursday, raising concerns about evacuation plans and the quality of air and water at the three Lahaina schools set to reopen Oct. 16. 

The Interim Schools Working Group led by co-chairs Rep. Jenna Takenouchi and Rep. Justin Woodson is one of six set up after the wildfires to inform policy proposals and decisions in the 2024 legislative session.

“Please know that we are here with you, we are here to listen to your voice and we want to walk with you to get to a better place,” Woodson said.

Hawaii DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi, complex area superintendent Rebecca Winkie and other DOE officials attended, although Hayashi later drew criticism for leaving the meeting early for another commitment.  

Elizabeth Bowen, a teacher at Princess Nahiʻenaʻena Elementary, questioned what the school’s evacuation plans would look like in the case of another fire. (Screenshot/Hawaii DOE)

Parents and teachers questioned if Princess Nahiʻenaʻena Elementary, Lahaina Intermediate and Lahainaluna High School were adequately prepared to keep their children safe. 

Elizabeth Bowen, a teacher at Princess Nahiʻenaʻena Elementary, argued that the one open road coming in and out of the three Lahaina schools would be insufficient for evacuating students in the case of a fire. Even on a normal school day, Bowen said, cars are at a standstill on Lahainaluna Road from 7:15 a.m. to 8 a.m. as parents drop off students. 

With the addition of students from King Kamehameha III Elementary, who will temporarily be attending Princess Nahiʻenaʻena Elementary, traffic congestion on the road leading to and from the three Lahaina schools will be even worse, Bowen said. 

Tiffany Teruya, whose son was enrolled in the Hawaiian immersion program at Lahaina Intermediate before the fires, echoed Bowen’s concerns and testified that she does not feel comfortable sending her son back to school at this time. 

“You guys need to dig into a more safer, sensible plan for us to risk our children being in an area that’s not safe to come out of right now, if something should happen,” Teruya said.  

DOE spokesperson Nanea Kalani said in a written statement that all DOE schools must have emergency action plans and drills for events such as earthquakes, lockdowns and fires.

Lahaina schools, in collaboration with the Department of Transportation and Maui County, are currently revising their evacuation plans to respond to the August wildfires, Kalani said. 

Lahaina Intermediate School remains untouched Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina. A large fire consumed areas of West Maui last week. Utilities have not been fully restored.  (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahaina Intermediate School was untouched by the Aug. 8 fire and will reopen Oct. 16 the Hawaii DOE said. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Other community members questioned the working group and DOE about responding to potential changes in Lahaina’s air quality. Susan Pcola-Davis called for the DOE to develop and share an evacuation plan with parents and the mayor that details what would happen if the air quality around the schools drastically changes. 

“I don’t think the lessons have been learned yet,” Pcola-Davis said. 

In response to the public’s testimony, deputy superintendent Tammi Oyadomari-Chun said the DOE will continue to publicize information about the air, water and soil quality at the schools, which the Department of Health has deemed safe for students. She added that the evacuation plans will be ready before the students return to campus. 

“We are concerned about those too,” Oyadomari-Chun said. 

Moving forward, the state should consider major environmental disasters when deciding on a permanent campus for King Kamehameha III Elementary, said Pakalana Phillips, a former Lahaina teacher and mother of six children. Prior to its destruction in the fires, King Kamehameha III was the only school on Maui located in a tsunami zone, according to the DOE’s website.

It would be unacceptable for King Kamehameha III to be rebuilt in the same location, Phillips said. As a former teacher for the school, she added, she used to practice tsunami evacuation drills with her students that would require them to cross major highways to get to a local youth center. 

“Why must we wait to put our kids in danger before somebody comes up with a plan to make sure our children are safe?,” Philips asked. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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